Being awarded a MacArthur fellowship is a big deal. Colloquially known as the ‘genius grant’ (though the foundation shies away from that term), it is given to those who show “exceptional creativity in their work and the prospect for still more in the future.” It is prestigious, with previous Fellowships having been awarded to everyone from leading mathematicians to author Cormac McCarthy. Perhaps most importantly, it comes with $625,000 worth of grant money to be used over a five year period, no strings attached. So, what is a puppeteer doing on this year’s list of MacArthur Fellows?
The answer is that Basil Twist, who describes his work using terms like ‘abstract puppetry’ or ‘non-representational puppetry,’ is the type of artist who transcends the genre. He doesn’t manipulate puppets so much as he breathes life into them; and not just dolls, but objects like a desk, a feather, a scrap of fabric — in Twist’s hands, the inanimate becomes animate. A pop reference point for the kind of work Twist does can be found in the Harry Potter movies in the form of the Dementors; Twist was brought on for ‘The Prisoner of Azkaban,’ and he created these spectral characters by using puppetry filmed underwater, though the final versions were rendered in CGI.
Vice’s feature on Twist and his puppetry work takes a closer look at the man and his vision:
“Twist is trying to expand our understanding of puppetry beyond the boundaries of our expectations, beyond what a thing represents and who’s pulling its strings. Abstraction strips away some of these concerns, allowing adults to embrace the magic of what we’re seeing. ‘What you feel and what you believe are actually the most important things,’ Twist told me, ‘but we’re so bombarded by what we know.'”